The best way to understand how to organize and write a journal article is to look at the articles in one or two of the major journals and see how they are organized. Look for articles that are somewhat similar in their approach or methods, but any issue of ASR will give you a good idea of the structure. There is some flexibility, but there is also a clear general logic and sequence that journal reviewers and readers expect to find, and that allows people to skim quickly through articles and find what they want to learn. (You can “content-analyze” journal articles, and in fact Andrew Abbott has done so.)
The sequence of the final product bears very little relation to the order in which you are able to write the sections. Writing is a craft, and you can expect to work back and forth, to discover new things as you write, and then to organize the work into a coherent and logical product so a reader knows what you did, what you found, and why it was important. So regard the outline that follows as a place to put different parts of the paper, and not as the sequence in which to write it. I’ve provided some advice about the writing sequence in the descriptions below.
This comes first, but is generally written last, because it is a very brief summary of what you found and its significance.
The introduction describes very briefly what the study is about. It should be short and clear, and it should let the reader know quickly what this piece of research is about and why they might want to read it. Don’t get stuck here at the beginning. You will need to come back to this later anyway.
Theory, Prior Research and Background
This is where you situate your study in its intellectual context, which may include the relevant theoretical work and any empirical studies that relate to yours. In standard sociological journal articles, this section generally contains some summary statements followed by “shotgun citations” to the literature. You do not need to write out elaborate descriptions or analyses of the theories on which the paper is based. You just need to make the basic points that lead to your paper, and cite them to sources so that readers can see what you are building on. Don’t start at the beginning of creation. Start with the specific theoretical ideas you are actually going to USE in the paper.
If there is a substantial body of empirical work that you are building on, then you may need to describe that in a bit more detail so the reader can see where you are going and why. If your study relies heavily on understanding a specific social or historical context, you may also need a background section here that provides the context so the reader can follow. Don’t include this unless you need it. In some cases, where there is no prior research, this might substitute for the review of prior research described above.
This section may not be called “theory” and it may have subdivisions to reflect the logical sequence of ideas. It should lead the reader to the specific research questions and/or hypotheses for the study. Hypotheses are sometimes presented one by one, with their justifying background; specific research questions that are not couched as hypotheses usually are presented clearly at the end of this section. In either case, you only need sufficient theory, prior research, and background so the reader can understand how you arrived at these research questions and why they are reading the article.
Sometimes it is easier to work backwards and unless you are engaged in traditional, formal hypothesis testing, there is nothing wrong with that sort of inductive procedure. You are writing a paper because you have some interesting findings, so you have to find a way to make sense of them. You may be able to state your research questions based on your initial theoretical or substantive interest. Now that you have findings, you can fine-tune the research questions to reflect what you actually were able to learn, and then work backwards to develop the appropriate intellectual context in which to place the study. If you have a big study, you probably are only presenting one part of it in one journal article, so its background and research questions will be specific to the paper, not to the larger study.
Methods and Procedures
This section lays out HOW you performed the research that addresses the research questions or tests the hypotheses. This is where you report clearly the things that you decided upon in your research plan, and the procedures you used. It may be divided into sections if needed to explain the sample and sampling procedures, and to describe how you coded and analyzed the data. Sometimes coding details are put into an appendix or into footnotes to save space. However, this section should be where the reader can find out whatever they need to know in order to understand what you did and to interpret any quantitative results you provide. This section includes the basic numbers of your sample and a clear description of major variables and how they were derived or coded. It is often easiest to write up this section first.
Findings or Results
This section reports what you found. It is organized as a logical presentation of the findings that address the research questions, so it may have subsections with specific titles to guide the reader. If the findings are primarily quantitative, then it will have some tables that summarize the findings and an explanation in the text. If the findings are primarily qualitative, then it will have sections that make specific points, with the evidence to back them up, which might be quotations of material, constructed example cases or summaries, or presentation of concepts or terms and some indication of their frequency in the sample to persuade the reader that they really are grounded in the data and not simply a flight of fancy. If the analysis is about the co-occurrence, or some sort of relation between the patterns in different parts of the data, then you may need some simple tables or diagrams to convey that to the reader. If the findings are about some sequence or time-related process, then you will need to find an appropriate way to show that to the reader. The point is that you need to convince the reader that you actually have evidence for what you are saying.
Discussion and Conclusions
This may be one section or two separate ones, depending on the nature of the research. The point here is to summarize for the reader the implications and significance of the findings. That means while you might quickly summarize key findings, the focus is on how they relate back to the theory and prior research that you presented at the beginning of the paper. A journal article is supposed to advance the study of the field, by its theoretical, methodological, or substantive contributions. This is where you draw out what that contribution is, and link it to what came before so the nature of your advance is clear. This is NOT generally a place to talk about what you didn’t do, or what “further research” is needed, unless that is a very clear and direct implication from your study.